09 March 2018

Designing the 21st Century Ger Project launched

Ger disctrict of Bayangol and Songinokhairkhan districts, Ulaanbaatar city, Mongolia. 8th March 2018
©UNICEFMongolia/TamirBayarsaikhan
In the beginning of March, a group of international experts, including researchers from Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania and KieranTimberlake architecture firm, arrived to Ulaanbaatar to discuss the possibilities of ger redesign and find ways to better insulate the traditional Mongolian housing. The 21st Century Ger Project, launched by UNICEF Mongolia as part of its work on air pollution, hopes to reduce both the fuel costs for local families and toxic air in the capital.

The round tent-like ger has been a typical feature of life in Central Asia for at least 3000 years. Over one-third of Ulaanbaatar inhabitants still live in gers in the so-called ger districts. This brings many challenges to the families, who need to fight the long and cold Mongolian winter, during which the temperature regularly drops as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius. By using unrefined coal for cooking and heating, the air pollution in the city is getting significantly worse and has a  devastating impact on health of children and pregnant women. 

“When I go to school in the morning, it is usually very smoggy. Sometimes when I cross the road, I can’t tell if the light is green or red. The smoke makes my throat burn,” says Nandin-Erdene, a nine-year-old girl living with her parents and siblings in a ger district. 

Field visit to manufacturing Site in Narantuul market where spend the half day learning from locals. Visited local market/sellers of materials used in ger to get sense of types and availability of materials, how gers are constructed and insulated, and understand the finances. Narantuul market, Bayanzurkh discrict, Ulaanbaatar city, Mongolia
©UNICEFMongolia/TamirBayarsaikhan
Even bigger threat is indoor air pollution, which kills more children globally than outdoor toxic air. The 21st Century Ger Project is trying to againsaddress this issue. “Ger is a structure that I have admired as an architect since I was a teenager. However, I would say there are two big weaknesses. One is the floor and the second is the fact that it is heated with the stove in the middle, meaning it is both forcing air to move through the ger, but it is also emitting carbon dioxide, pollutants and particulars,” says William B. Braham, a Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the project participants.

Thermal behavior of gers

Before coming to Ulaanbaatar, the experts have installed sensors in the ger in Mongolia to study its thermal behavior, and constructed a test site at the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. In Mongolia, together with the local non-profit organization GerHub, the group visited several gers with different layers of insulation, interviewed their residents and drove to the countryside to build their own ger and learn more about the materials and techniques used. Building a traditional Mongolian ger, constructed of felt, canvas and wood or steel, takes less than two hours.

Understanding the urban user and urban ecosystem. Songinokhairkhan district, Ulaanbaatar city, Mongolia.
©UNICEFMongolia/TamirBayarsaikhan
“One thing that really surprised me was how important it remains that the gers will be easily disassembled – even when they are stationary and no longer used for nomadic purposes. It's amazing how such a robust structure can be taken down and rebuilt  several times a year by a single family with relative ease,” says Jennie Bernstein, Urban Innovation Specialist at UNICEF’s Office of Innovation. 

Building a prototype

However, a difficult task is now awaiting the experts. They are still collecting the data from Ulaanbaatar and Philadelphia to learn more about the thermal behavior of gers. In the coming months, they will need to find out how to improve the insulation in terms of the cold temperature, stoves and especially the floors, which are usually the coldest part of the ger and difficult for its dwellers to control. The prototypes should be installed by October and the prototyping materials will be used not only in the household gers, but also in ger kindergartens. 

The team is divided into two groups to build a Mongolian Ger under the guidance of local instructors in rural Ger
camp area in Erdene sum, Tuv province, Mongolia ©UNICEFMongolia/TamirBayarsaikhan 
“I think the biggest challenge for us will be finding ways to improve air quality for ger dwellers, while recognizing that it is unlikely we will see the end of coal use anytime soon. However, there are immediate, incremental changes that ger dwellers are already making that can have a notable impact on lessening overall coal consumption and improving air quality – particularly with regards to indoor air pollution,” says Bernstein. For example, some families already started to monitor air quality inside their gers regularly and are now adjusting the heating accordingly.  

“Most of our next steps revolve around figuring out how we can capture and share those existing solutions, and how we can potentially enhance them. As a team, we will spend the next month lining up all the partners’ and resources necessary to move this initiative forward,” adds Bernstein.

Written by
Sabina Netrvalov√°

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